Cocoa Layer Cake

4:38 pm

Cats like butter.  Or think they do, at least.

Who knew, right?

In preparing for this cake, I had dutifully set out my eggs and stick of butter to come to room temperature like a good little baker.  Not long thereafter when I heard a distant crinkling from the other room, I assumed it was the cats discovering something we had neglected to put away after dinner.

Izze is always the first to break.  As I near the room of their wrongdoing, Izze darts past me in the classic game of “It wasn’t me!”  Daphne, knowing no shame, will always still be working away at their capture when I enter.  Thankfully, my cleanup duties that night did not include cat vomit (too graphic?) as they had just managed to unwrap the corner of the butter.  Times like these are when my germaphobic tendencies are validated; I did get a new stick for the recipe and secured it properly.

Thankfully, the rest of the Cocoa Layer Cake (from the Feb 2011 issue of Bon Appétit) preparation puttered along without a hitch.  The pressure was on; after all, as I was preparing this for the next day’s potluck we’d be hosting at our house for the folks in my work department and their families….and there are some pretty wicked bakers in that bunch.

The recipe called for three separate layers, however, I only have 2-9″ round baking pans and didn’t feel like springing for a third pan or taking the extra time to bake the third layer.  The latter was really the clinching factor as I have a tendency to start baking when most people are getting ready for bed (in fact, my mom long ago suggested that, if I ever opened a bakeshop, I should call it “The Midnight Baker”…on a side note, I think that in addition to baking and talking about it, I also have an addiction to using parenthesis).

The two-layer system worked out quite nicely.  In fact, I felt I had an excellent frosting-between-and-over-the-layers to cake ratio despite my concerns that the frosting would seem too heavy with fewer separating layers.

Unfortunately, I can’t really tell you how long I baked them for.  I know you’re thinking trademarked secret but, sadly, that’s not the case.  I simply forgot to re-set the timer halfway through when I switched the layers but luck intervened before they were ruined.  If I had to guess, I would say that it was around 20 minutes…close to what the original recipe called for.  Maybe next time I need to switch layers, I’ll set the microwave timer for the switch and the oven timer for the overall bake time.

The cake turned out rich, chocolaty and moist.  According to one guest, the richness would be complimented nicely by a glass of milk, but happened to taste good with the beer in her hand as well.  A few folks pointed out the hint of smokiness or bitterness in the frosting that effectively balanced the sweet of the cake…almost a molasses-type flavor.  It was suggested and soon agreed that the stove-melted brown sugar in the frosting was the cause.

Due to the richness, we got significantly more servings than suggested out of it…16.  Thankfully, it kept well at room temperature for a few days so that Rick and I could enjoy the addition of “eat chocolate cake and drink milk” to our nightly routines.  The night after we ran out of cake, there was a certain emptiness in the air…

At this point, I need your guidance.  On my previous baking post, I only described the additional costs to me as whole amounts.  For example, since I had to buy a whole lb of unsalted butter to re-stock, I included that as an additional cost.

Here, however, is another cost option.  Below I’ve provided the total possible cost of the recipe with household/store brand prices as well as local/organic/high-end options if available from my grocery store.  So though this doesn’t reflect the total amount spent on ingredients at the check-out, it’s a more accurate picture of how much the recipe would cost.  There are a few things I always buy organic (milk, eggs and butter) and, though it’s not true in all cases, I usually spring for the higher-end baking products when available (I’ll take any help I can get!).  When organic options weren’t easily available, I used the standard.

total ingredients household/store  brand price high end/
organic price
1-1/2 c unsweetened cocoa powder $1.96 $2.47
1/2 c Buttermilk $0.24 $0.44
1-1/2 c cake flour $0.54 household brand
3/4 tsp baking soda $0.01 household brand
1-5/6 c packed golden brown sugar $1.03 household brand
2-1/4 sticks unsalted butter $2.63 $3.49
2 large eggs $0.22 $0.58
2 tsp instant espresso powder $0.04 household brand
1 c heavy whipping cream $1.39 $1.99
2 tsp vanilla extract $0.83 $0.43
TOTAL COST $8.89 $11.02


So please let me know which is more helpful for you.  After all, it’s really you this is about anyway.

Sigh…even as I type this from the dining room, I can see Daphne peering at the countertop, eyeing it up for any possible morsels.  She knows no shame.

Cocoa Layer Cake
Recipe by Alice Medrich
10 servings
PREP TIME: 1 hour
TOTAL TIME: 3 hours (includes chilling time)



  • 1/2 cup natural unsweetened cocoa powder (spooned into cup to measure, then leveled)
  • 1 cup lukewarm water, divided
  • 1/2 cup buttermilk
  • 1 1/2 cups cake flour (spooned into cups to measure, then leveled)
  • 3/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1/2 cup (packed) golden brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 2 large eggs, room temperature, beaten to blend


  • 10 tablespoons (1 1/4 sticks) unsalted butter
  • 1 1/3 cups (packed) golden brown sugar
  • 1 cup natural unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 2 teaspoons instant espresso powder
  • 1 cup heavy whipping cream
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract

special equipment

  • 3- 9-inch-diameter cake pans with 11/2-inch-high sides



  • Position 1 rack in top third and 1 rack in bottom third of oven; preheat to 350°F.  Butter three 9-inch-diameter cake pans with 1 1/2-inch-high sides.  Line with parchment paper rounds

    (This is easily cut out by tracing the bottom of the pans on the parchment paper); butter parchment. Whisk cocoa and 1/2 cup warm water in small bowl. Whisk buttermilk and 1/2 cup water in another small bowl. Sift flour, baking soda, and 1/4 teaspoon salt into medium bowl.  Using electric mixer, beat both sugars and butter in large bowl until pale yellow and fluffy (mixture will appear granular), about 5 minutes.

    (As you’ll note in the picture, my “pale yellow” turned out to be more of a tan…this discrepancy didn’t seem to affect the outcome.)

    With mixer running, gradually add beaten eggs, then beat until smooth and fluffy, about 15 seconds. Add cocoa mixture; beat to blend. Add flour mixture in 3 additions alternately with buttermilk mixture in 2 additions, beating to blend after each addition. Divide batter among pans (about 1 3/4 cups each).

  • Bake cakes until tester inserted into center comes out clean, reversing pans halfway through baking, about 18 minutes. Cool completely in pans on racks.


  • Melt butter in medium saucepan over medium heat. Stir in sugar, cocoa, espresso powder, and 1/2 teaspoon (scant) salt. Gradually stir in cream. Stir until mixture is very hot and just begins to simmer at edges. Reduce heat to low; stir 1 minute to let flavors blend. Transfer to medium bowl; stir in vanilla (frosting will resemble chocolate sauce). Chill until just thickened, stirring occasionally, about 1 1/2 hours. Let stand at room temperature.
  • Run knife around cake sides. Carefully invert 1 cake onto plate (cake is very tender); peel off parchment. Spread with 1/2 cup frosting. Invert second cake onto palm of hand. Position cake 2 inches above frosted cake layer. Carefully slide cake onto first cake layer. Peel off parchment. Spread cake with 1/2 cup frosting. Repeat with third cake layer. Spread remaining frosting over top and sides of cake. Do AHEAD Can be made 1 day ahead. Cover with cake dome; let stand at room temperature.
  • Cut into wedges and serve.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Angie May 12, 2011 at 12:03 pm

I think it was definitely the espresso powder that lent the hint of bitterness to the frosting. That’s exactly the flavor I was trying to describe.


Clay May 14, 2011 at 4:52 pm

Your comment about parentheses made me chuckle. (I am also an addict.)

Nice pictures and good description. You cannot go wrong with chocolate. I was not sure if you’d want this entry broadcast, but the “Share the Love!” banner made me feel like it was okay to share this on Facebook. So, I gave you some props.


Hilary Wichman May 20, 2011 at 10:48 pm

That cake looks absolutely scrumptious! (Can I live in your kitchen??)


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